views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Fred and Madge
The Hope Theatre
19th September 2014

★★★☆☆

The ensemble of Fred and Madge

Photography © Christopher Tribble

With their production of The Young Visiters an unlikely roaring success, it's easy to see why the idea of staging something else which wasn't ever meant to be a show appealed to ambitious company Rough Haired Pointer. However, Fred and Madge, a "lost" play by Joe Orton, doesn't quite have the same charm as their previous work. That's not to say that this isn't a decent enough staging, it's just that the company have started from a real disadvantage, with Orton's writing inconsistent. The problem with Fred and Madge is that it was written over 50 years ago and we don't know if Orton actually intended for it to ever be published. Having gone on to bigger and better things, I'd like to say he himself would have acknowledged this wasn't his grand opus but an early experiment that he sadly didn't have time to revisit and tighten up.

Our titular characters, Fred (Jake Curran) and Madge (Jodyanne Richardson) have been married for what feels like an eternity. Not to labour the point, but during the day, Fred pushes a boulder up a hill and Madge sieves water for a living. It's all Greek to me. During the evening, they sit around in beige knitwear, debating the merits of getting pet bats or perhaps locusts, in order to "break the monotony" of their lives. Madge's sister, Queenie (Geordie Wright) occasionally pops round, much to Fred's irritation. This is life as it always has been, and initially, it feels like this is life as it always will be.

In the first of many unexpected developments, Fred and Madge do actually get divorced and start seeing other people. Much of the second half revolves around the detailed planning for Madge's wedding to Jimmy (Jordan Mallory-Skinner). Determined for her big day to be special, Madge hires an "insultrix", Dr Petrie (Andy Brock), who is aided by his trusty assistant, Miss Oldbourne (Loz Keystone).

It's all a play within a play - how very Shakespearean - but what can be an effective framing device is only hinted at the first half and then not followed through with in the second. With Orton more or less giving up on this concept, the script goes from "meta" to confusing. It's an absurdist piece, albeit a much more juvenile version than say Ionesco (also writing at the time) so wondering every so often what's going on isn't necessarily an issue. But Fred and Madge is also meant to be a farce, and the laughs seem to derive from the delivery rather than any particular skill in the writing.

Jodyanne Richardson and Jake Curran as Madge and Fred

Photography © Christopher Tribble

Director Mary Franklin does her best to elicit as many chuckles as possible. The choice of cast and the wonderfully spot-on comedic timing do suggest her involvement, but we can't see her hand throughout. With Franklin one of the most talented directors on the fringe circuit, if this is the peak of Fred and Madge, I have my reservations about any other companies giving this a go next.

While the set does come across as basic, as the show unfolds, it becomes clear that this has been one giant deception and it's not simple at all. Christopher Hone has created a thoroughly brilliant purpose-built stage which houses many different props and without giving too much away, his design really does help the cast with their timing. Not only is it functional, but it's sharp and aesthetically pleasing, a real triumph of design.

There are moments when the pacing drops a little, but Mallory-Skinner always reinvigorates the action whether he's reappearing as an actor or in his capacity as musical director. Just as his music added something special to The Diary of a Nobody, it gives Fred and Madge a much needed lift here. All of the actors do a fabulous job - it's the first time I've seen Richardson, but the others are predictably excellent - but it's Mallory-Skinner who is rapidly turning into a personal favourite. He undertakes a number of different roles in this play, but Gladys is a notable highlight.

Let's be frank - this is not the best show that Rough Haired Pointer have ever staged yet it's still worthy of a watch. Granted, that may simply be out of pure historical curiosity more than anything else. After all, this is the first time that Fred and Madge has been put on - and it may well be the last. The company are hindered by the limitations of the script - next time they tackle a piece, they'll do well to either pick a good one or work with a playwright who is still alive, so they can shake him down if things go wrong.

Fred and Madge ran from 15th September to18th October 2014 at the Hope Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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